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5 Ideas for SEL in a Remote Learning Environment

In my newly released, self-paced course, “Developing the Innovator’s Mindset Through Remote, Face-to-Face, and Blended Learning,” there is a focus throughout on the following question:

“How do we build relationships in remote learning environments and address the social-emotional needs of our students?”

In this series of posts, I have shared ideas and the importance of building relationships in remote learning settings as well as ideas on how to empower learners.

In this post, I am going to specifically discuss ideas that you can use for social-emotional learning in a remote learning environment. The ideas shared in this post will be added to the course to go along with all the other lessons and resources that you can find in each module, which you can learn more about here.


In a group conversation, I remember one educator sharing that all students will be returning to school in the fall with some varying degrees of trauma. I am not a medical professional, nor do I play one on TV, but that statement hit me hard. This could also be true of the adults as well. I understand that the experience of school in 2020 and being physically isolated could be one of the factors, but it is not limited to that.

Torrey Trust, Ph.D., provides this great document (you can see the version with live links here) for things to consider for teaching in 2020.

Rethinking Teaching 2020. Enriching remote, online, hyflex, blended, and in-person teaching for fall 2020. Accessible version at https://bit.ly/rethinkteach2020

There are so many great resources and ideas shared in this document, but this especially resonated:

Don’t change your expectations, change your approach. Maintain high expectations for all learners but understand that students are struggling more than ever. Students will need extra support and flexible deadlines rather than consequences.

I remember watching this video by liv mcneil and think about how overwhelming learning in isolation can be, and how we need to focus on the learner experience. If you have not seen the video below, I strongly suggest you watch it with your staff and discuss the student experience no matter whether you are in a remote, hybrid, or face-to-face learning situation.

School needs to be meaningful for all learners (adults as well)  and not seen as an overwhelming checklist.

Liv’s video reminds me of the Simon Sinek quote, “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion,” but as my friend Mandy Froehlich shares in her book, “Reignite the Flames,” even too much of something that you are passionate about can lead to burnout:

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) needs to be at the forefront of the work that we do in education. Not just now, but always.  My friend Evan Whitehead reminded me in our podcast together that “Balance, Boundaries, and Breaks” are crucial at all levels in learning, especially at the start of a school year. Evan reminds us that if we do not focus on emotional and mental well-being, it is nearly impossible to learn.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as the following:

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

CASEL also then defines “Five Core Competencies” for SEL:

Self-awareness: The ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior. This includes accurately assessing one’s strengths and limitations and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.

Self-management: The ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations. This includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.

Social awareness: The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical norms for behavior, and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.

Relationship skills: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.

Responsible decision-making: The ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others.

In this post, I would like to share some ideas that I see as connected to these “Five Core Competencies” that you can use in a remote learning environment.

As I discuss these ideas, please note that these are just ideas, and since relationships are at the core of what we do in education, knowing and remixing to your context is imperative. I cannot provide solutions, only ideas, as those in classrooms create solutions. No student or classroom situation is the same.

Also, please note that as I share these ideas, none of the “Five Core Competencies” work in isolation. For example, “social awareness” would be pretty hard to accomplish unless you have a level of “self-awareness” and vice-versa.

Here are some ideas that I encourage you to remix


1. Classroom Meetings and Greetings/Virtual Circle Time (Relationship Skills)

Circle time is a popular process in many “face-to-face” settings, but variations of it have been used in remote learning environments and at different ages. According to the article, “What is Circle Time and How it Benefits Your Children“:

Circle time is a time for important social interactions among young children. It helps develop positive relationships between kids through engaging and fun activities. It is also used to address certain issues identified in the class such as too much noise and talking during class lessons.

From some of the virtual classrooms that I have been a part of, they have structured time for students to take turns speaking and sharing about themselves, but it also encourages active listening during that time. Circle time also gives learners opportunities to check-in and follow up with others based on what they share, which can be great for building empathy and developing stronger relationships.

Often, things like “circle-time” are associated with pre-school and elementary level classrooms, but I have seen it with all grade levels, including adults.  I remember working with a virtual school, and they noticed that I never jumped straight into the content, but would always take time to ask a question to the group for me to get to know them and for them to get to know each other. One comment from the group that stuck out was that they felt they had been jumping into the content with their students immediately, and it now felt “cold” to do it that way.

I have also used things like this “Meme Check-In” to get people sharing and chatting on how they are feeling to start the day. It provides for a little laughter while checking in on the learners in the space.

I know that it is easy to worry that you will not be able to get through content when we take this time to connect, but it is an investment that you will get back tenfold.  If someone is struggling and disengaged that day, they won’t be able to learn what is being shared anyway. The group meeting/greeting to start, for me, is a must to grow learning and learners.


2. Brainwriting (Self-Awareness)

Most, if not all educators, know the process of brainstorming. One of the things I have witnessed during group meetings on Zoom is that people are sent to breakout rooms and asked to brainstorm ideas on any given topic. I have struggled with this both as a learner and as a teacher.

In ‘Innovate Inside the Box,” I shared an idea of something that you can do before brainstorming, called “Brainwriting.”

In the article “Brainstorming Doesn’t Work; Try This Instead,” the author Rebecca Greenfield notes that “in most meetings with traditional brainstorming, a few people do 60 to 75 percent of the talking.” She suggests having participants write about their ideas, questions, and solutions before coming together with the group. That’s brainwriting, and it helps ensure that people have the opportunity to process their ideas and develop their thoughts.

A couple of things about this process…

People process their ideas in different ways and giving them time and space to prepare before brainstorming can be beneficial to not only the individual but also the group. I also think with high levels of “Zoom Fatigue” (this is an excellent article on combatting Zoom fatigue for adults and should be considered for younger learners), this can allow learners to step away from a screen and gather their thoughts before sharing with others.

Collaboration is an important skill, but there are always benefits in having time in isolation to catch your breath and gather your thoughts. It is essential to create that time in all learning spaces for all learners.


3. Identity Day (Social Awareness)

I know I have shared this idea a million times, but I am comfortable sharing it a million more 🙂

Identity Day is one of my favorite activities as an educator, and it is a great way to not only share something about who I am, but it is a great way to learn about others in your community.

Here is an example of how you can use Flipgrid to set up an Identity Day in a remote learning environment.

You can also learn more about the power of this process from my original blog post on the day.


4. Dreams, Needs, and Abilities (DNA) Inventory (Self-Management)

My friend, Laurie McIntosh, came up with this great idea called a DNA inventory based on an idea from Tom Hierck. Laurie came up with a process to focus on her students’ “dreams, needs, and abilities and to base their experience in our classrooms around this information.” This process ties in beautifully with the self-management idea of “setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals” as she has students identify their own “DNA” through the process.

In her kindergarten class, Laurie would ask the following questions:

Dreams: What do you wonder about? What do you hope to learn about in kindergarten? Where do you want to go in your life?

Needs: How can I help you? How can I be a better teacher for you?

Abilities: What are you AMAZING at?

Laurie shares that this process is not only beneficial to the students, but to the environment she creates for them as well:

DNA inventories have changed my focus, my energy and my connection with my learners. This precious information and the ways it is used in the classroom allows us to value their dreams, examine their needs without judgement and to focus on their abilities and the gifts they can share with others. It allows them to feel comfortable and cared for so that they can learn effectively. It provides a sense of being heard, loved and wanted in our classroom. It builds our classroom culture and sends the message that they are someone’s everything and that it is a privilege to get to spend this time with them.

All students in our care should feel what Laurie has shared, and the DNA Inventory is a great way to achieve that in any setting.


5. Gratitude Journals  (Responsible Decision Making)

I remember reading Patrick Larkin’s blog in March 2020 titled, “Never A Better Time To Practice Gratitude” and was intrigued by this portion:

“I can easily list all of my anxieties about these unparalleled time and continually discuss my fears, but I also know that these days will provide opportunities that would not have been previously possible.

Find one thing each day that you are grateful for that would not have been possible if we were not in these unique circumstances.”

When I first read that, it threw me off as I knew there were so many bad things happening at the time. But then I tried it, and when I started focusing on what I was grateful for (for example, getting time with my kids that I had never had before), it helped me to focus less on myself and what was wrong in my situation and better help others.

According to the “Nationwide Children’s Hospital,” expressing gratitude has many health benefits as well:

  1. Expressing gratitude can improve your mood. People who regularly express gratitude for the positive things in their life are shown to be happier overall, leading to lower rates of stress and depression.
  2. Showing gratitude can make you more optimistic. Studies show that those who express gratitude regularly appear to have a more positive outlook on life.
  3. Sharing gratitude can improve social bonds. People have reported feeling more loved and more connected to others in their lives when they routinely practice gratitude or those around them practice gratitude.
  4. Practicing gratitude can improve your physical health. People who actively express gratitude tend to be more engaged in activities to take care of their physical health, like eating well and exercising. This leads to higher energy levels, better sleep and a stronger immune system, or the ability to fight off illness or infection.

In this post, I wrote about “The Importance of Gratitude,” I adapted Tim Denning’s questions “to measure your day” and added the third on gratitude below:

1. Did I learn one new thing today?
2. Did I help or inspire one person?
3. Did I show gratitude to someone who has had a positive impact on me?

You can have students take time through creating a blog/portfolio (which is also beneficial to educators) to share their answers to these questions daily or weekly, or I have created this tutorial on how to use Google Forms to do a gratitude journal as well.


As always, the ideas above can be adapted to any environment as they are not exclusive to a remote learning situation. But in an online environment, SEL is something we need to be very intentional about as we miss out on many of the social cues that are provided in a face-to-face setting that helps meet the needs of our students and teach them the skills to take care of themselves as well.

The environment we create in our classroom is crucial, and years ago, I wrote a post on “10 Easy Ways To Create an Amazing #ClassroomCulture This Year, but adapted the ideas for a remote learning situation.

As we enter into a new school year, please remember that the mental and emotional well-being of our students is essential, as it is for the adults. Please take care of yourself and learn to give yourself grace through uncertain times. School should be a place where all are nurtured to grow, both by others and themselves.


If you want to learn more about these ideas and many, many more, check out the “Developing the Innovator’s Mindset Through Remote, Face-to-Face, and Blended Learning” course that is currently on sale for a limited time!

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